I had my first panic attack at four years old. I hated bedtime, always fearing an attack as if the darkness could consume me. I couldn’t fall asleep unless someone sat in my room with me, and even then I needed a nightlight. My mother recommended I hide under the covers to fall asleep—but how could I hide with my heart ticking like a time bomb and the swell of adrenaline forcing me to react? I assumed my clamminess and punctured breathing originated from a justifiable fear. So my insomnia kept me vigilant, spending the majority of nights sitting in bed until I became so exhausted I collapsed unknowingly into sleep.
But even during sleep peace didn’t come easily; I was often plagued by reoccurring nightmares and nocturnal panic attacks. I was afraid of so many things. I couldn’t go to the basement alone, I was afraid to shower, I couldn’t eat white foods (mayo, eggs, yogurt), I couldn’t touch dirty plates or sponges, I hyperventilated whenever I got a needle or learned I had accidentally shared a drink with someone. Around ten I developed a phobia of vomiting and at fourteen I became preoccupied with the idea that someone would break into my house at night and kill me. The problem with anxiety disorders is that the brain can’t distinguish the difference between a perceived situation and the reality. For example, one night I convinced myself a dull pain in my leg was a blood clot and that it would soon make it’s way to my heart and I would die. This ended in a rather intense panic attack during which I couldn’t breathe, which only confirmed my notion that I was soon going to die. In fact, most nights I believed I would die. Every sound I heard I assumed was something breaking in. So I’d lay in bed, my heart racing and my body sweaty, plotting an escape out my second-story window or attempting to accep the inevitability of death. Once I even pushed a bookshelf in front of my door to barricade it.
These fears and obsessions were often accompanied by compulsions. I needed to sleep with a telephone and cell phone (in case I needed to call the police), a Maglite (used as either a flashlight or weapon), a rosary (for spiritual protection), a taser (for actual protection), and my television remote (mostly to help my insomnia). Before going to sleep, I had to check the locks on every door and window. I had to go to the bathroom before every meal, whenever I left the house, before starting a movie, or before going to bed; I then had to stand up and sit down on the toilet a certain number of times until it felt “right.” These compulsions weren’t optional; I needed to preform these routines in order to stay calm.
I had horrible and unpredictable mood swings, going from manic and giddy to unreasonably depressed for no real reason, which strained my relationships. I experimented with self-harm, skipping meals, hitting or cutting myself. After 18 years of discontent and unhappiness, college changed my life. My mother has high anxiety and occasional bouts of depression, and my sister, who I shared a room with, has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Leaving home helped me realize that not everybody lives so high-strung and under so many arbitrary rules. I learned how to predict the onset of a panic attack and how to prevent it, though living inside my head still felt like the middle of a loud, crowded frat party with no escape. When my boyfriend and I attempted to have sex but couldn’t due to my vaginismus, I decided enough was enough. I was ready to change.
I started seeing a therapist and she diagnosed me with Generalized Anxiety and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, with occasional episodes of Panic Disorder and depression. She recommended buying the Anxiety and Phobia Workbook. Reading through it, seeing every one of my symptoms clearly written out and defined for the first time, I was comforted that these problems weren’t me: they were the generic symptoms of a mental disorder.
She suggested I try antidepressants as a stepping stone, with the ultimate goal of finding other coping mechanisms to handle my anxiety. She explained that if I had diabetes, I would take insulin—so why, after almost two decades of clear mental imbalance, would I refuse a medication that could give my brain the boost it needed to function normally? For a few weeks, the thought of taking an antidepressant made my anxiety rise even higher. I didn’t want to put foreign chemicals in my body; I never even took painkillers, allergy medication or birth control. Admittedly I also feared taking antidepressants because I felt they were my last chance. If they didn’t work, I would have to live in my suppressed, boxed way forever.
I got lucky that my antidepressant worked without having to experiment. For the past five years I’ve been on 20mg of Citalopram, a generic form of the SSRI Celexa. When I was still in the United States, my co-pay was about $4 a month. Here in France I receive the medication for free. I’ve never experienced any horrible side-effects; my appetite only decreased for the first week, and my sex drive has stayed the same, even if reaching orgasm is a bit more of an accomplishment.
After taking medication for a few weeks, the ghost of my depressive self floated away. I saw life clearly for the first time, free of compulsions, panic attacks, and irrational fears. While I still have obsessive thoughts, their persistence has diminished. I could’ve gotten to this point without initial medication use—it’s impossible to work towards a goal one is completely unfamiliar with. Some day I plan to wean myself off of antidepressants. I’ve taken up running and learned that all the hype is true—the endorphins do indeed boost my moral and stabilize my mood. Yoga makes both my body and mind freer. Vitamin D pills are a great supplement to help ward off my seasonal depression that hits around mid-November every year.
After being afraid of everything for so long, I now leave no room for fear. I don’t like anyone–even the voice in my own head–telling me what I can or cannot do. If something scares me, that’s all the more reason to confront it: skydiving, moving to a new country, performing at an open mic…or quite simply, touching a sponge with my bare hands.
I have friends who have been wrongly prescribed antidepressants, though I’m not sure I blame doctors alone for this. You need to understand yourself, notice your behavioral and emotional patterns and do your own research.
Have you ever suffered from any anxiety disorders? Or any experiences (good, bad, or both) with antidepressants? Let me know your story in the comments.